O'Neil's presence still felt at 'Buck's Place'
Negro Leagues Museum pays tribute to those whose success continued in MLB
KANSAS CITY -- The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum on 18th and Vine is known affectionately to locals as "Buck's Place." This is where Buck O'Neil, the face, voice and soul of the game in these parts, spent much of his time in the final decades of a rich, joyous life that spanned 94 years and 11 months.
You can't come to the museum, with all of its memories and magic encased and showcased for posterity, without thinking about Buck, telling Buck stories.
And so it was on Sunday morning as luminaries such as Hall of Famer Frank Robinson and Sharon Robinson, daughter of Jackie Robinson, attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony presided over by museum president and caretaker Bob Kendrick.
"We'll do anything for Buck," Kendrick said of his good friend, who died a month shy of his 95th birthday in 2006. "We miss him dearly. You can feel his presence in this room."
The focus of a new exhibit called "They Were ALL Stars" is shining a light on the players who followed Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby in moving from the Negro Leagues to All-Star recognition in the Major Leagues. The pioneers, Jackie Robinson and the sometimes-overlooked Doby, broke through the doors in 1947 in Brooklyn and Cleveland, respectively.
Among those who can find his younger image on display on handsome placards in the exhibit -- right alongside the likes of Hank Aaron and Willie Mays -- is George Altman, a three-time All-Star with the Cubs who also unleashed his sweet swing for the Cardinals and Mets.
Altman is 79 but could pass for 49. O'Neil, who signed Lou Brock as a scout and convinced Billy Williams not to quit the game as a Minor Leaguer, had something to do with that, with his familiar mantra: "Always look for the beauty in life."
Altman was a young man, right out of Tennessee State University and four years of basketball excellence, when he joined the legendary Kansas City Monarchs, managed by O'Neil, in 1955. Among those on the team was the greatest of all African-American pitchers, Leroy "Satchel" Paige.
"Oh, yes, Buck was quite a man," Altman said, his eyes alive, his smile widening. "He was the best manager I ever played for, and I played for Leo Durocher and Casey Stengel. Buck knew how to inspire you, lift you up to a higher level.
"Buck could be tough. He had that big voice. `Light 'em up!' he'd said. `You're better than he is.' You would run through a wall for Buck. He surpassed anybody I played for."
O'Neil, a superb glove man at first base with some thunder in his bat, never played in the Major Leagues, but called his autobiography "I Was Right on Time." He had a way of pushing bitterness away like an insidious disease, no matter how badly he'd been wronged.
The first African-American coach in MLB history with the Cubs in 1962, O'Neil became a member of the team's creative -- if ultimately unsuccessful -- "College of Coaches," a rotating collection of managers from the coaching ranks. Buck had not been asked to take the reins before the experiment was abandoned for good in 1965.
"Everybody got to take over but Buck," Altman said. "Buck had better credentials, more experience, than any of them. In my opinion, he'd have been one of the best managers in the game if he'd gotten the chance."
Frank Robinson broke that barrier with the Indians in 1975. His uniform from that season is part of the new mobile exhibit that will travel around the country for future events, including All-Star games, to spread the message about the daring, exciting brand of baseball delivered by the Negro Leagues.
"The history began right around 1920-60, through [Negro] Leagues operated with great vibrancy," Kendrick said. "You can imagine what it was like before 1947 and the caliber of athletes we had in the Negro Leagues.
"This exhibit will chronicle the 20 players who transitioned from the Negro Leagues and subsequently became [MLB] All-Stars. When we heard Kansas City was getting the  All-Star Game, there was nobody as excited as the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum [operators]."
The museum has fallen on hard times periodically, but it hopes to reach new levels of popularity with fans through the assistance of Major League Baseball and media exposure.
"This is very important to my family and to all of us," Sharon Robinson said. "The Negro Leagues Museum is a treasure, and we have to get the word out."
Kendrick, whose well of humor is Buck-like, sent out a special message to the late Paige, Altman's teammate with the Monarchs.
"Let's wish Satchel a happy 106th birthday -- or it could have been 116," Kendrick said. "We don't really know."
Frank Robinson, who has returned to MLB as a vice-president focusing on developing youthful talent, said the museum "keeps us connected to the past, to what sacrifices were made by African-Americans to get us in the Major Leagues. I was just a youngster when Jackie Robinson broke the barrier, but I understood that if you had the skills, you had a chance."
For Altman, seeing his representation alongside the greats "is a great honor. I'm thrilled to be in the same room with these guys: Hall of Famers and legends, pioneers who started the integration of Major League Baseball.
"A lot of great players came before these guys but never had an opportunity to play in the big leagues. People should know about them, too."
That was O'Neil's mission, and it is being carried out in ways befitting a gentleman who lived for the beauty in the game -- and life.
The 83rd Major League Baseball All-Star Game will be televised nationally by FOX Sports, in Canada by Rogers Sportsnet and RDS, and worldwide by partners in more than 200 countries via MLB International's independent feed. Pregame ceremonies begin at 7:30 p.m. (EDT)/6:30 p.m. (CDT). ESPN Radio and ESPN Radio Deportes will provide exclusive national radio coverage. MLB Network, MLB.com and Sirius XM also will provide comprehensive All-Star Game coverage.
Fans will also have the opportunity to participate in the official voting for the Ted Williams Most Valuable Player presented by Chevrolet via the 2012 MLB.com All-Star Game MVP Vote during the All-Star Game on MLB.com
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.